Working with Concussion and Brain Injuries: A Lesson in Cognitive Flexibility through Art Therapy

A brain injury leads to rigidity. This means over-thinking and over-planning to compensate for memory loss, lack of attention to details, inability to self-regulate like before – otherwise known as cognitive failures. Meaning people feel like they are a failure because of their brain injuries.

People with a brain injury and a concussion have increased headaches, dizziness, difficulties planning and these can result in difficulties adapting to new situations and people.

What are the results? Blaming oneself for the perceived failures and inability to perform like they used to.

Blaming oneself increases stress, anxiety and can result in depression.

Using Art Therapy can help with cognitive flexibility. Even for those who have no art experience and insist they are mathematically inclined. Why does Art Therapy help? Because it works on cognitive flexibility in action.

Let’s take the example of creating a word-art collage.

1. First, the client has to find words that represent how they feel.

They are encouraged to do this by scanning a magazine for the words in their heart. I also teach the person to create new words if they can’t find the exact word they are looking for. Experiment and cut out new words. This increases creativity, which is a flexible process, by thinking outside the box!

Through this process, clients are learning to discriminate and prioritize between what is important and what is not.

Clients are learning to cut things out and throwing unnecessary words away, and surprisingly this is a very difficult task. Due to the memory loss after a brain injury, everything seems important because losing things including thoughts and ideas has become the new norm. But this is overwhelming. Learning to use cognitive factors such as the ability to discriminate and prioritize means recognizing that not everything is important. This leads to more flexible problem solving by reducing the need to hold onto everything as a way to compensate for memory and cognitive failures.

2. By throwing in the element of surprise, clients are learning to work with unpredictable circumstances.

In the Art Therapy exercise, I add an element of surprise by adding the collage paper underneath before placing the words on top. This means that once the client creates their carefully designed word collage, they have to remove it to place collage paper underneath. This shows them that plans can change. And the results can still be ok.

In life, there are many unpredictable situations. Being flexible saves psychological and emotional energy. Rigidity creates mental and physical tension. Tapping into creativity to solve problems and come up with novel and innovative ways to approach a problem leads to re-discovering one’s potential for innovation; the act of bringing something new into the world. This builds self-confidence.

3. Trusting in one’s intact abilities.

Art Therapy teaches the client the skill of learning to create a rough plan and then having the freedom to problem solve and create something new. This is the key characteristic in innovation. The inward experience after a brain injury and trauma tells a person that risks are unsafe. ‘Don’t do it!’ Learning to take safe risks again is key to breaking through the emotional barriers that keep a person stuck. Accepting there may be mistakes in creating art and that this it is OK. This builds a new foundation of safety. A key feature in healing from trauma. In life, things do not always turn out the way we plan, but sometimes we can be surprised by our abilities to adapt and create something new from difficult circumstances. It may even turn out better than we expected. Surprise!

4. What are the results?

A reduction in self-blame, acceptance of perceived failures, acceptance of one’s current abilities, decrease anxiety and depression. And most of all, learning to have confidence in one’s abilities again. To feel that there is still happiness and joy after trauma.

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